Today, July 18, 2018, while hiking with me in the Pine Barrens of Southern New Jersey, my friend Eric nearly stepped on this fine snake.
from Eurydics: Snake
My Ph.D. Dissertation, Uncanny World: Envisioning Nature in Documentary, was awarded the Diane Hunter Prize for Best Dissertation, 2017, from the English Department of the University of Pennsylvania. Working title of the next draft is slightly different: Uncanny World: A Field Guide to Nature Documentary. The dissertation was supervised by Prof. Charles Bernstein (Donald T. Regan Professor of English and Comparative Literature), with the additional guidance of committee members Prof. Karen Redrobe (Elliot and Roslyn Jaffe Endowed Professor in Film Studies) and Prof. Timothy Corrigan (Professor of English, Cinema Studies, and History of Art) and honorary member Prof. John Tresch (Associate Professor of the History and Sociology of Science).
The citation, written by Hunter Prize judges Prof. Rita Barnard (Director, Comparative Literature Program; Professor of English and Comparative Literature) and Prof. Rita Copeland (Sheli Z. and Burton X. Rosenberg Professor of the Humanities, Professor of Classical Studies, English, and Comparative Literature), reads as follows:
“The committee was extremely impressed by the range and quality of the work submitted for the award. We extend our sincerest congratulations and admiration to all of the nominees, whose collective work is testimony to the intellectual energy and rigor of Penn’s English department. We agreed, however, to name Jason Zuzga’s “Uncanny World: Envisioning Nature in Documentary,” as the winner of the prize for the best dissertation.
“In ‘Uncanny World,’ Jason Zuzga gives a deep history and wide-ranging examination of the genre of the ‘Nature Documentary.’ He offers fresh and revealing engagements with the older standards of the genre, films by Jean Painlevé, Jacques Cousteau, Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, and Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, as well as more recent iconic works from ‘The Nature Channel,’ including March of the Penguins and the Blue Planet series. But Jason opens the generic limitations of the ‘nature documentary’ to include a remarkably larger corpus in a variety of modes and media. One aspect, treated in Chapter Three (“A History of Nature Documentary: Taxonomy, Predecessors, Tendencies and Survey of Critique”) is the much longer history of representational forms that aim to document nature, from Aristotle’s On the Generation of Animals and Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things to Erasmus Darwin’s The Loves of Plants, Charles Darwin’s On the Origin and Species and The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. This history extends further to other crucial nineteenth century figures like Alexander von Humboldt and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Jason’s study also encompasses Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man, Isabella Rossellini’s Green Porn, the Australian aboriginal film Two Laws, and animated simulations used in molecular biology.
“His capacious presentation of the genre of ‘nature documentary’ develops into profound and considered reflection on knowledge, experience, and technology. Behind his arguments lies a vast repository of theoretical reading, which he controls with maturity and activates in precise and fresh language. His insights into familiar figures like Freud and Zizek are surprising and informative, but he also brings critical thought about the aesthetics of representation into dialogue with neuroscience and environmental studies. He raises the profound questions about how our organs of perception and ways of seeing shape our world and how we may begin to engage with the strange worlds that other perceptual modes could give rise to. Ultimately, Jason arrives at the following paradox: that documenting nature is impossible given the constraints of our perceptual toolkit, but that the impulse to document nature is a necessary and ethical one: it motivates us to develop new ways of seeing.
“In his acknowledgements, Jason thanks his cat Tracey for asking him the most probing questions. Hats off, therefore, to his cat, and also to his dissertation director, Charles Bernstein.”
September 19, 2017
Slideshow of images from the making of the dissertation and from the dissertation itself:
Lemon writes, “…I love Heat Wake because of the many ways it loves…Heat Wake is filled with wondrous poems that speak directly about love/being love/the misfirings of love, but there is so much more adoration in this collection. These poems love language and verbal play, the panoramic intellect, humor, moments of doomsaying and this complex and fractured world that is slipping through our hands. I’ve spent hours with the many lenses through which we see Eros in Zuzga’s book: the speaker addressing Rimbaud in ‘Homage,”’the sensuality of cleaning someone’s ear in ‘Ear,’ or ‘I was angry at myself for being a teenage mermaid,’ the awesome beginning to the Tilt-A-Whirl movement of ‘Love Poem,’ or one of my favorite’s, the speaker alive beside a [queer] intimate inside the body of an extinct Stellar’s Sea Cow in ‘Extinction Narrative…’ Heat Wake is one of those rare books that works in manifold ways—it gives to the reader, on every level—it is energizing, alive and deeply layered with knowledge and sensuous. This collection thinks and breathes in ways that make impossible not to feel, impossible not to read a poem and smile or sense the start of something burning in the chest.”
Saturnalia Books, 2016
Full Disclosure: Jason Zuzga is a friend of mine, but I have no connection to Saturnalia books.
It is such a pleasure to finally see a Jason Zuzga book in print. To say this book has been long-awaited by many, many poets is an under, understatement. I was in grad school with Jason in Tucson, 2001. I loved his work back then; everyone did. I don’t know why this collection took so long to bring into the world. Maybe Jason wasn’t submitting enough. Maybe presses couldn’t see what a wild, original, talented mind this guy has. Or maybe the book just took this long to come to its final form. I’m hardly one to talk about publishing slowly.
Anyway, it’s here now and it’s really good.
Heat Wake is everything I am excited about in poetry now. The poems feel odd as the spores on a fern plant at one moment and polished as a limousine the next. You just have no idea where he might go next in such a delightful way. And it always works because the poems are extensions of life and personality more than exercises in craft (though they are also very skillful). I guess what I’m trying to say is that they’re not trying to be something. They are that thing. That is Zuzga’s mind. There are fun, wild associative leaping and tender personal moments, history and science; and everything odd seems personal and everything personal odd. And there is a closeness and humanity to it all underneath. Quoting lines don’t do his work justice, so I’m just going to quote a whole poem here.
Your Age on Other Worlds
Greased surfers on the right,
oil pumping up the left – you drive down the crease
of California as the convexities of boys become
heightened on the waves.
I will guess your age on other worlds.
Stretched into sixteen on all of them. Mine.
When Neptune hurls back around to where it is now
these boys will be decaying
not tucked into their skins not tucked into their wetsuits
not sixteen not alive not riding the waves off California
rubbing itself the way a back shifts.
One night one boy is hurling through time to
the instant he will pass you in the supermarket.
His liverspotted hand a vortex shoves you through
gliding up the crest of time to California.
The pumpers suck sweet sip of time’s decay.
The car drives past you down the crease burning rubber.
The oncoming night glides open and closes and pulses.
Observers lightyears away longingly watch wave
lift you. Look back now to where we were before
this got started – star collapsing,
insane and greedy in the dark.
I mean who does this! Who connects time travel and the sleek bodies of surfers and drive down the coast in such a strange and beautiful way? This collection gets me really pumped about poetry again. Seriously, I would trade this one poem for a dozen other full collections I have read in the past year.
I could go on and on about all the poems in this collection, but this collection makes you want to write your own poems because it just humms with an infectious vitality. So, just use your internets and order it now. You must have it in your life and on your shelf.
In the window, in good company….
The first review of Heat Wake, from Publishers Weekly, is in…. read it here and below…
Zuzga’s debut collection grows out of the intersection of myth and nature, like a simmering volcano of animal intensity that occasionally erupts in expressions that alternate between euphoria and lament. He establishes this strange amalgam from the opening lines of the first poem: “All rocks are queer. By this I mean/ I’m gay.” In “Love Poem,” Zuzga recalls a melancholic youth in the dark shadow of an emerging queer identity (“I was angry at myself for being a teenaged mermaid”) and tinges of this same sadness appear at other moments in the collection. “I may have exceeded the number of allowable/ falls-in-love,” he sighs. Animals appear everywhere, including bats, sharks, “hot deer,” and an extinct Steller’s Sea Cow that munches “on sea lettuce the color/ of absinthe.” Zuzga also meditates on the distinctions between human and nonhuman animal as scientists observe an array of marine life. In the title poem, he gets futuristic, imagining the cyborg “not-yet elephants of Mars.” The book’s third section (of six), “Electric Clocks Don’t Tick,” revolves around Zuzga’s suburban New Jersey childhood and features Aunt Dottie’s “sun tea,” adventures with Encyclopedia Brown, and a surprisingly tender bathroom inventory. These gentle touches bloom all the more brightly under Zuzga’s zoological bell jar, placing a real human heartbeat in the menagerie. (Mar.)
Heat Wake was published by Saturnalia Books on March 15, 2016.
The cover image has been created specifically for the book by artist Jim Drain.
Here are some early takes on the book….
“In their movement between animal, human, and mineral, Zuzga’s poems are metamorphic as the salamander who eats a California roll in a food court. A less moral Moore, Zuzga understands that the social and the natural relate in ways science alone cannot realize. Unboundaried, unanxious, his queer imagination finds backdoor correspondences that would make even Baudelaire blush. Heat Wake is not a hothouse gothic. It is a water sports park, full of liking, where one is encouraged to fondle the fauna. Let’s hope the poet has not surpassed “the number of allowable falls-in-love” and keeps exceeding lyrically.”—Christopher Schmidt, author of The Poetics of Waste and The Next In Line
“For the anatomical sensations he observes, in the tenderness of his sentences and white space, in his insatiate curiosity, his experience of surrealism, we might consider Jason Zuzga the Oliver Sacks of poetry. His new book Heat Wake is a miracle of pacing, reflection, action mixed together in scherzo form. I envy him his effects, things I could never get away with, nor even conceive of, and none more than his signature stroke, the noun pressed into service as verb (“One touch hurricanes you open,” “The sky veins with electricity,” et cetera). Heat Wake takes you in all the way to the hilt and returns you to earth a spent homunculus, a will of the wisp, a clown, and you will be thanking Jason Zuzga for your transformation for as long as you emotion your heart and brain.”—Kevin Killian, author of Tweaky Village and Argento Series
“Charming, witty, and science-y smart, these debut collection poems pop with volleys of youthful and wise acts, tactics, maneuvers, catastrophes, scenes, and did I mention love poems overrunning! And anthropomorphism at its finest—“The sounds flick off. Please. The desert would like to be alone.” Reader, you won’t be lonely in this lively tour of a refreshed world. Thank you, Jason Zuzga, for the language to imagine a benevolent universe.” —Jane Miller, author of Memory at These Speeds: New and Selected Poems and A Palace of Pearls
“Don’t expect to ‘come out’—Zuzga’s closet opens to a queer ocean, and try as we may to grasp at the skeletons we fleetingly see stacked, we fall with him into the unbiographing, inky depths. If he plays with L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, it’s merely an octopus floating by; if conceptualist crimes are committed, Encyclopedia Brown solves the case; whatever happens is what is happening, which happens to be what never happened. Not for sure. Heat Wake: the congregation of company this poet accrues in his many deaths, with each page sizzling as a new bolt of divinely mad lightning strikes him—leaving us with not so much a speaker but a folio record of the sensorial events and animalistic upheavals occasioning him. Impossible as a wave to finish, Heat Wake‘s magic will linger like sand between your toes.” — Andy Emitt, Journalist for Pitchfork